Growing up, the word “Voortman” was a shorthand for the speculaas that were a staple of my youth. I knew the founders were post-Second World War Dutch immigrants like my own family, the Voortman brothers founded what would become a $100 million “cookie empire” based in Burlington, Ontario and selling more than 60 varieties in 70 countries around the world. To me, though, it was all distant and impersonal, a brand rather than a person.
That changed in 1988 when I met Bill Voortman. I was a university student engaged in politics and had secured a meeting with Bill at his home. I came to ask for some financial help and a public endorsement. It was a big deal for me and I was very nervous. From his greeting at the door, Bill quickly set me at ease. An hour later, I left with what I had asked for but, as I was about to learn, Bill gave much more than you realized. The advice and encouragement he began providing me then, and continued for the decades to follow, were provisions of a far more valuable currency.
During the past 32 years, I have, in a board or staff capacity, been involved in the leadership of four organizations of which Bill was an engaged supporter. When Michael Van Pelt and I began the project now known as Cardus, Bill was among the first to sign on. Bill provided advice, challenged you to think about big questions but, most significantly, exuded a joy about the privilege of being involved.
Whenever I left a meeting with Bill, even if it was one in which I had come to make an “ask,” he left me feeling I had done him a favour by working for a mission he believed was important.
I never kept count but every so often (sometimes three months apart and then not for three years), I would get a call out of the blue inviting me to breakfast or lunch. It always seemed to be at a busy time and I wasn’t always sure of the agenda. Usually the agenda was “How are you doing?” Bill wasn’t one to engage in formulaic conversations – you knew and felt he genuinely cared.
It was the summer of 2007 when Michael and I were invited to a lunch with a similar undefined agenda. I can still picture the patio on which this very long conversation took place. Bill was musing out loud and being very candid about his support for various organizations. His challenge was framed in a question. “What would be the long-term impact of a significant gift to a school, international relief agency, or inner city ministry and how would you compare them?” Measuring return on investment was intuitive to his sharp business mind and while Bill was always careful to remind us to trust in the Lord and not rely ourselves and our strategies for success, that was never an excuse to not be stewardly or smart in our efforts.
The result of Bill’s question was a symposium on Christian education and ultimately a decade-long project measuring the academic, cultural and spiritual impact of Christian education on graduates. Throughout, he remained a conversation partner, although very careful in the background and going out of his way neither to interfere nor to be seen to be interfering. He was self-deprecating, suggesting that when it came to policy and research, he didn’t understand what we were doing or why we were doing it, even as he betrayed his deeper understandings by asking incisive questions.
Cardus was blessed with growth and, during the summer of 2008, Michael and I were having an off-site meeting. The white boards were filled with our scribbles and it was mid-afternoon on a hot day and we had run out of gas. The only solution on the table was a radical one and we weren’t sure. A phone call to Bill and 45 minutes later he showed up to join us. Three hours later, we left with confidence and the sketch of a strategic plan that would serve us well for the better part of the subsequent decade. In his wisdom, he never made a single suggestion but he did ask the right questions and provide the encouragement required for us to make some bold steps.
Bill passed away last weekend and the COVID conditions meant his funeral this week was a private affair. There was no place to share these stories. The generosity of the Voortmans is well-known in the broader and Christian community but few, I suspect, realize the manner in which their generosity was extended.
Bill Voortman wasn’t about Bill Voortman. He is a biography of how God uses gifted but broken people to build His kingdom.